One of the topics I am most interested in covering on this blog is the artistic process behind turning a moment of inspiration into a fully-realized perfume.
In November, I found the perfect opportunity to illustrate this process. John Biebel (of January Scent Project) and I were discussing the progress on our respective recent compositions when the conversation turned to the difficulty of working with evergreen essences. We both love the complexity of raw evergreen materials with their layers of fruit, wood, resin, and spice notes, but lament how most fragrances incorporating these essences tend to be either too raw and unpolished or bury the evergreen element almost entirely in synthetic fluff. A few days after our conversation, I proposed a mutual challenge to John: create a perfume starring evergreen essences while still being balanced and sufficiently refined. John and I would each create rough drafts of our own evergreen blends and then send them to each other to be critiqued and then further refined. However, to add another dimension to the challenge, we stipulated that our blends should attempt to capture a specific place and moment in time. Perfumes linked to a specific memory or place have a power emotional impact and can truly transport the wearer.
As we are now in the thick of the challenge, this presents me with a wonderful opportunity to document my creative process from start to finish as it happens rather than trying to recall my the experience long after the fact with mediocre results.
John, with characteristic zeal, has already sent me not one, but two different blends of his evergreen fragrance while I am still wandering around in the conceptual phase.
With this prompting from John, it’s high time to get to work on my own composition.
The challenge parameters to choose a specific location and focus on evergreen materials is helpful in narrowing down the possibilities for my fragrance concept. My mind immediately jumps to the Ice Lakes in Soda Springs, California. Located high in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the town of Truckee, these lakes once provided ice for Californians before the spread of widespread electric refrigeration and ice making. The main lake sits in a bowl of low mountains surrounded by fir trees and a few quaint cabins. Though tranquil, there is nothing particularly awe-ispiring about the frozen sheet of white; at least, not during the day. If you venture out onto the ice in the dead of winter on a moonless night you will find a scene of unparalleled majesty. From the center of the lake the Milky Way spans from rim to rim of the bowl and you find yourself standing in the center of an immense celestial dome. The brilliance of the stars and the harshness of the cold air contrive to make one feel truly insignificant and not a little bit alone and vulnerable.
So that is my challenge for this scent. To capture the feeling of being surrounded by that cage of stars out on the ice: at once isolating and awe-inspiring.
Now that I have my inspiration, the first big step is to translate that idea into a sketch of the fragrance’s structure. Making a structure outline or "skeleton" gives the scent much more direction and purpose than if I just pulled out my essences and starting blending at this point. There are many ways to tackle creating a structure sketch, but I often use what I have termed the impressionistic method. Like the impressionist painters of the later nineteenth century, I like to divide my composition into two elements: the mimetic and the abstract. The mimetic elements of the scent try to accurately capture the actual smells that can be detected in a specific location or during a particular moment. For example, a scent based on a pastoral scene might have hay absolute, lavender, and deer’s tongue: all essences featuring aromatic compounds you would likely encounter in a hayfield during harvest. Thinking back to my inspiration, the mimetic elements of my evergreen scent begin to naturally fall into place.
The forest surrounding the lake is mainly composed of white and red fir trees, which are very similar in scent to a delightful black spruce absolute I have on hand. I would select the spruce absolute over the fir essential oils in my collection as the central evergreen element in the fragrance because the solvent extracted absolute is much smoother in character than any of the fir oils, and also boasts much better longevity, allowing the key evergreen note to remain present into the drydown phase of the perfume’s evolution. I will however, add a touch of fir essential oil to the blend to give a crisp blast of freshly crushed needles right at the start of the scent. Apart from the fir trees, the other prominent scent out on the ice is the peculiar smell of the frozen dirt lining the nearby road. It often clings to your snow boots as you walk out to the lake and has a surprisingly dry and crisp smell for dirt, more like wood shavings than mud. My mind wanders here to a particularly suave aged patchouli that I sometimes use when I want a sharper dirt smell rather than something moist and muddy.
Now that I have decided on the mimetic backbone of the scent it’s time to explore the abstract elements of my inspirational site. The central impression I want the scent to convey is a sense of cold: a chilling, yet majestic cold like the expansive night sky. The tricky bit here is choosing the right element to communicate that precise kind of cold. There are many cooling elements in the perfumer’s palette from the obnoxiously cheery wintergreen to the austere aldehydes. For this scent, I’m definitely searching for something more austere, more sublime. Rather than using one main cooling element, I will try inserting multiple cooling essences into all three layers of the scent (top, heart, and base) so that the sense of cold stays constant on the skin even as the perfume morphs and evolves. For the heart, rose otto is an obvious choice as it has a much cooler and majestic presence than its sister, the warm and honeyed rose absolute. The rose otto will also lend a refined “perfumey” element to the composition and keep it from feeling overly raw. To further chill the heart, I think I am going to add quite a bit of a delightful natural lily of the valley accord. Not only is the lily of the valley accord quite cold and crisp in smell, but muguet is very much linked with mountain scenery in my mind and helps to further transport me to alpine environments. For the top, I am going to try a bit of white birch. This is a risky move as white birch can easily turn a blend into something reminiscent of wintergreen chewing gum, but I just love how cold it is. I will probably need to add a bit of a dry smelling essence to keep the blend more cosmic than candy, but that calculation will come during the actual blending stage.
With the abstract element added to the mimetic core, I now have a more concrete skeleton for the perfume. Here is the outline laid out:
Noble Fir Essential Oil, White Birch Essential Oil
Lily of the Valley Blend, Rose Otto
Black Spruce Absolute, Aged Patchouli
These are by no means the only essences that will go into the final blend (at least five or six more will figure into the completed perfume) and the outline is bound to change once I begin to blend the first draft. However, this gives me a very clear idea of what I am aiming for in the final blend and the essences I will need to get there; it’s a sort of roadmap for the composition that will keep my blending focused and purposeful. A lot will change between here and the final product, but this starting point is key to building a well-structured perfume.
In part two I will sit down to blend the first draft and send the results off to John!